Sign up for podcast updates and more!
Hazel Scott was a musical prodigy as a child and started at The Juilliard School of Music when she was just 8 years old! By her teen years she was playing piano all over New York City and eventually found her way to film and television. Her skills and talents were undeniable but it’s her bravery and willingness to stand up for what she believed in truly make her a Rebel Girl!
Meet the amazing soul, jazz and R&B singer, songwriter, and performer, Andra Day. Andra read us the story of the child musical prodigy who grew up to wow audiences around the world, Hazel Scott. Andra tells us all about her creative process and what inspires her to make music!
ANDRA DAY Once upon a time, there was a girl who lived using beats and rhythms that were all her own. Her name was Hazel.
DAY Hazel was born in 1920 on an island called Trinidad. On the streets of her town, hymns streamed out of cathedrals and her neighbors danced to calypsos.
Music filled Hazel’s home, too. Her mother Alma taught piano, and her grandmother Margaret sang songs to help Hazel sleep.
One afternoon, when Hazel was three years old, Margaret was singing one of Hazel’s favorite hymns. Hazel had been asking for it at naptime every day for weeks. But this time, instead of putting Hazel to sleep, it was Margaret who drifted off.
Hazel tottered over to the piano and clambered onto the bench. She put both hands on the keys and started to play the exact same hymn her grandmother had been singing.
DAY Margaret startled awake.
“Who’s there?” she asked.
“Me!” Hazel said.
When Margaret found Hazel at the piano bench, her eyes went wide. She listened to Hazel play, then ran outside, calling to the neighbors.
Hazel had never played piano before. She’d watched her mother’s students, and had screamed when they hit the wrong notes. But no one knew that the music was building up inside her. No one knew that her fingers had been itching to play.
Margaret called it a miracle.
Neighbors crowded into the house. Hazel delighted in their applause. She loved the feeling of the keys under her fingers, and the bright, dancing melodies they made when she played.
Now that Hazel had started making music, she never wanted to stop.
DAY I’m Andra Day. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Hazel Scott.
<END THEME MUSIC>
DAY On her fourth birthday, hand-in-hand with her mother Alma, Hazel boarded a ship called the Maraval. Alma had heard of better opportunities in the United States, and had decided to move their family there. Hazel’s tummy was filled with butterflies as she wondered what awaited them in their new country.
Hazel and her mother made their home in a part of New York City called Harlem. Harlem was full of people of different colors who spoke many different languages. Hazel loved listening to their words and accents mingling in the air.
Still, adjusting to her new life was difficult. Many people lived in their house, and Hazel’s mother struggled to make ends meet. She worked as a maid and then tried running a tailoring shop. She even tried to open a Chinese restaurant!
DAY Through all this, playing piano was Hazel’s anchor. Hazel played for hours every day, and Alma gave her daughter lessons.
Hazel learned to read music and quickly picked up several classical songs. The better Hazel got, the more Alma saw how gifted she was.
Soon, she realized, Hazel would need a new teacher.
DAY In 1928, eight-year-old Hazel sat in front of a large piano. She took a deep breath and played.
In the audience, her mother sat with a professor at the Juilliard School, a famous music school in New York. Although the school only accepted students who were 16 or older, Alma had convinced them to let Hazel audition.
Hazel had chosen a difficult song by the famous composer Rachmaninoff.She knew it by heart. But there was one problem: Hazel’s hands were too small to reach a full octave—a span of eight keys. And there were a lot of octaves in Rachmaninoff’s song. So, she adapted as best she could, reaching across six keys.
Suddenly, an older man stormed into the audition room. “Who is that paraphrasing Rachmaninoff?” he yelled.
Hazel stopped. It was the founder of the Juilliard School. His eyes became wide when he saw who was playing.
“My hands aren’t big enough to reach an octave,” Hazel said.
DAY The man told her to continue, and she did—wowing both Juilliard’s founder and the professor in charge of her audition. Hazel was admitted to Juilliard. Since she was too young to take regular classes, the professor offered to give her private lessons.
Hazel was likely the youngest student—and one of the only black students—to study at Juilliard at that time.
DAY While Hazel studied classical music at Juilliard, her mother brought jazz into their lives.
After some failed businesses, Alma returned to music. She rented a tenor saxophone and took lessons. At first, she struggled with the instrument, but eventually became good enough to land a spot in a jazz band.
As Alma’s musician friends traipsed in and out of their house, Hazel was surrounded by the swing and sway of jazz. And when Alma decided to make her own all-women band, Hazel asked if she could join.
Her mother hesitated. First, Hazel was only 14. Second, Alma really wanted Hazel to become a classical pianist.
As usual, Hazel was undeterred.
“If you don’t let me play in the orchestra, I’ll become a juvenile delinquent!” she threatened.
With an argument like that, what else could her mother say but yes?
DAY One cold winter’s night in 1939, a roomful of New York’s poets, artists, musicians, and music-lovers gathered in a cozy nightclub called Café Society.
Café Society wasn’t just any club. It was one of a few in the city—and the country—that wasn’t segregated. Everyone was treated as equals, no matter their race.
That night, blues singer Ida Cox was supposed to perform—but she’d come down sick. So the owner hired Hazel Scott, a virtual unknown, to fill in for her.
At only 19 years old, Hazel walked onto the Café Society stage wearing a satin strapless gown and fresh gardenias in her hair. She glided to the piano and placed her hands on the black-and-white keys.
The crowd had come expecting to hear a blues singer, but Hazel started her set by playing Bach, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff. With years of classical training, every note came out just right.
Midway through one song, Hazel started speeding up. With her left hand, she played a low bass line that swung like boogie-woogie. The song became something else entirely.
At first, people smiled. Then, their toes started tapping. Finally, they cheered.
Hazel continued playing as the audience applauded, improvising new lines and occasionally beaming at the crowd over her shoulder.
She was a hit.
DAY Within a few years, Hazel was one of the most popular artists of her generation. While continuing to perform at Café Society, she played to sold-out crowds at Carnegie Hall, on Broadway, and in venues all around the city. She gallivanted with famous musicians and celebrities. She bought fur coats and bedecked herself in glittering jewels. She even had a chauffeur!
Hazel was also determined to stand up for herself and her beliefs. She spoke out about racial injustices, and refused to play for segregated audiences. While this sometimes limited the venues where she could perform, she always stood by her principles.
Then, in 1942, Hollywood came calling.
At that time, there weren’t a lot of movie roles for black characters who weren’t maids or fools. Hazel had seen her fair share of talented actors and musicians of color who were put into demeaning roles and costumes.
So, Hazel told her agent that if Hollywood wanted her, she had some rules: She wouldn’t play a maid, her skin color wouldn’t be altered, she’d wear her own clothes and jewels, and she’d always appear as herself.
Critics and audiences loved Hazel’s on-screen charisma and tremendous skill. In one mesmerizing performance, she played on two grand pianos at once. Dressed in an elegant white gown, Hazel smiled at the camera as she swiveled from one piano to the other before finally playing both at the same time!
But Hazel’s commitment to her principles would also get her into trouble.
DAY In the film The Heat’s On, one of Hazel’s numbers was a tribute to World War II soldiers. The dance scene included several black women who were supposed to see off their “men in uniform.”
As they prepared to film, Hazel overheard the choreographer saying that the women’s aprons were too clean. He asked the makeup department to spray them with oil and dirt.
Outraged, Hazel said she couldn’t imagine anyone seeing their loved ones off to war in anything but their best. She wondered aloud if the choreographer knew any people of color besides domestic help.
The choreographer wouldn’t budge. So Hazel refused to work. For three days, she shut down the production. Finally, they agreed to dress the women in clean floral dresses.
But by going on strike, Hazel had cost the executive producer lots of money. Enraged, he told her: “You’ll never make another picture as long as I live.”
And he was right. Hazel returned to New York, where she received no further offers from Hollywood.
DAY Though she could no longer do films, Hazel continued to wow the world with her piano-playing and singing. During her performances at Café Society and benefits for the war effort, she caught one particular audience member’s eye—Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
Adam was a well-known minister from Harlem who was outspoken about racial justice. In 1941, he became the first black man on the New York City Council. He was also a lover of all things jazz.
To Hazel, he was full of charm and fire. He had a set of convictions that rivaled her own. They fell in love and eventually married in 1945—just a few months after Adam was sworn in as the first black U.S. Congressman from the East Coast.
Adam loved Hazel, but he was intimidated by her, too. He worried about what his congregation thought of her. He knew many people thought nightclubs weren’t respectable. So, he asked her to leave Café Society and give up performing at clubs and lounges.
Reluctantly, Hazel agreed.
DAY “Presenting the New Hazel Scott,” newspaper headlines read. “Bye-Bye Boogie.”
Leaving nightclubs behind, Hazel focused on performing in concert halls and going on national tours. It was a risky move. Hazel tried not to be anything other than who she was. She added more classical and traditional jazz songs to her sets. But she still swung the classics.
Hazel found her popularity held, and she played to sold-out crowds across the country.
Still, life on the road was tough. Adam and Hazel had their only son, and Hazel hated to be away from them. Then, her mother passed away.
Hazel was devastated. Alma had been the “single biggest influence on [her] life,” and she wondered how she’d navigate life without her.
But she knew her mother would want her to keep pressing on. So, she did.
In 1950, Hazel became the first black person to have her own self-titled TV show. Three nights a week, she played classical music and jazz for an eager TV audience.
But her TV career would be short-lived.
DAY Hazel’s name had shown up on a list of possible communist sympathizers. Even though it wasn’t illegal to be communist, they were often accused of being anti-American, and a Congressional committee was formed to expose them.
Hazel was outraged by the accusation—and even more outraged that people who fought for equal rights were often the target of the committee’s investigations.
She requested an audience with the committee—something most people avoided. Then she submitted a 50-page statement and answered all of their questions.
“The actors, musicians, artists, composers, and all of the men and women of the arts are eager and anxious to help, to serve,” she told them. “We should not be written off by the vicious slanders of little and petty men. We are one of your most effective and irreplaceable instruments in the grim struggle ahead.”
Hazel knew she had done the right thing by speaking up.
But within a week, her television show was canceled. Her concert bookings dried up. And soon, she was struggling to keep her career afloat.
DAY Hazel took jobs overseas, and eventually moved to France. She and Adam spent less time together, so they decided it was best to end their marriage. Hazel brought her son to Paris with her, but it was difficult raising him on her own.
She missed her mother. She missed the life she once had.
Hazel struggled with feelings of hopelessness. Her friends rallied around her. With their support, she got healthier and found work again.
She went back to performing at nightclubs. But the scene had changed. People liked different kinds of music now, like rock and roll. Hazel couldn’t make ends meet.
After a decade abroad, she moved home to New York City.
DAY Despite all the difficulties, Hazel kept playing. At clubs and concerts, she played what she loved—straight jazz and love songs. She recorded albums that critics said were the best she’d ever made. She played to small audiences where she didn’t make a lot of money, but she made great music.
One day, she took her son to see a movie. They sat in the renovated theater, when suddenly, Hazel jumped to her feet.
“This is Café Society,” she shouted. “That was the stage!”
She remembered that moment: Being onstage at 19… smiling at the audience as she swung a song by Bach. She remembered the possibility and promise that the piano had opened up to her. Now, she stood in that exact same spot. Her heart ached as she remembered all she’d lost—loved ones, her biggest gigs, fame. But as the lights dimmed and she looked at her son beside her, she realized she had gained so much.
DAY In 1981, Hazel passed away while her friend, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespe, played one of her favorite songs. As the tune filled the room, so did Hazel’s legacy. Throughout her struggles, she’d kept playing and kept speaking out. And she’d never let anything get in the way of her beats and rhythms.
Today’s episode was hosted by grammy-nominated singer, songwriter and actress, Andra Day.
This podcast is based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and is a production of Rebel Girls and Boom Integrated, a division of John Marshall Media.
Our Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger. This season was produced by John Marshall Cheary, Sarah Storm, and Robin Lai. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager. This episode was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Katie Sprenger. Proofread by Ariana Rosas.
Original theme music and sound design by Elettra Bargiacchi and final mix by Mattia Marcelli.
Until next time… Stay tuned and stay rebel!